“Maybe one day, you can tie up the ends and go back?”
His eyes met mine and he offered me a small smile. “You get it, don’t you?”
“Yep. Because sometimes, you have to just take people as they are. With all their faults, beliefs, ideals, baggage. Whatever.”
“And if the person comes with two or three suitcases full?”
“Then we’ll unpack slowly.”
Our eyes met and held across the table. I decided to take a chance on him. I lay my hand on the table, palm up. Daniel hesitated for a fraction of a second before laying his hand in mine.
“How about we start unpacking?” I said quietly. “Don’t hide from me. Trust me. I am the last person who has the right to judge anyone.”
“That’s good enough for me.” I looked down to see that his right hand held mine on the table. “Why don’t you start now? Give me your hand.”
Daniel gave me a confused glance. “You have it,” he said, squeezing my hand to emphasize his point.
“I mean the other one.”
Slowly, he withdrew his hand from underneath the table and laid it into my waiting palm. He stared at his own hand as if it were a monster’s hand. I could feel the embarrassment radiating off of him in waves. And I knew that he so badly wanted to snatch his hand from mine and return it to safety under the table or in his pocket.
I closed my fingers around his and he flinched and started to pull away. “No. Don’t,” I said softly, tightening my grip on him. “I won’t hurt you.” Gently, I ran my fingers over the discolored skin on his finger and the back of his hand. He watched, his eyes wide. Slowly, I lifted his hand to my lips and kissed the patches of scarred skin. HIs eyes tracked my every movement, but he didn’t pull away.
“See? I’m not grossed out. I think you’re beautiful,” I whispered.
“You do? Then you’re the only one.”
“Yes I do. Why do you think I was the only one to serve you when you came into the coffee shop?”
He shrugged. “I figured they were scared of me or something. The way they all stare at me and talk about me. And I thought that you must have felt sorry for me.”
“That couldn’t be further from the truth, Daniel. I traded tables so I could get a chance to talk to you.” I rubbed the back of his hand along my cheek. His skin was surprisingly soft against mine.
“That’s nice,” he murmured. “I just wish I could feel it.”
I looked up at him. “You can’t feel me touching you?”
Daniel pulled his hand from mine and flexed his fingers. “I burned my index finger and knuckles so badly that I lost all sensation there. I can use my hand. I just can’t feel it.”
I reached for his hand again. “Let’s see what I can do about that,” I said.
“It’s okay. There’s nothing-”
He broke off as I began to gently stroke the discolored part of his skin. The breath caught in his throat as my fingers moved to the unscarred part of his hand. Once more, I brought his hand to my lips and kissed his palm. Slowly, he pulled away and lay his hand against my cheek.
“Can you teach other parts of me to feel again?” he asked quietly.
“What do you mean?”
He shook his head, his fingers tracing my lips. “My heart maybe? It’s cold and numb. Dead even.”
One corner of his mouth lifted just slightly. “You’ll be surprised at what love and war can do to you.”
I took both his hands in mine. “We’ll bring you back, Sergeant.”
His hand shook as he gave the waitress the check. She didn’t seem to notice it as she gave me glance and him a smile and hurried away to get his change.
“Shall we walk?” he said.
The air had cooled a bit and a nice breeze was blowing across the river. Daniel took my hand, pulling me close as we moved into the surge of bodies walking along the boardwalk. He glanced at me.
“So I don’t lose you in the crowd,” he explained.
I grinned at him and gave his hand a squeeze. Glancing down, I noticed that his right hand held mine. I looked over at him.
“I just want to feel every touch of your skin against mine,” he explained.
Another jolt of some emotion that I couldn’t quite name shot through me and my heart beat a little faster. I didn’t know this man any more than what he’d told me tonight and what I’d read in the articles written about him. And yet I was afraid that I was falling for him. I didn’t want to let it go just yet.
I looked out over the river, one of the large river boats catching my eye. Daddy, I thought as a sudden sadness washed over me. I missed him so much. And suddenly, I wanted to ride one again to feel close to him for a few moments.
“Have you ever ridden one of those?” I asked Daniel, pointing to the riverboat.
He shook his head. “No.”
I looked at him incredulously. “How can you claim to be from the river if you’ve never ridden a river boat before?”
Daniel lifted a shoulder. “There are a lot of things I haven’t done. I’ve been on a boat. Just not one of those.” He pulled me to the edge of the rail and we leaned on it, watching the boat move lazily through the water. “Maybe we can do that together sometime.”
I nodded. “Yeah. I’d like that.”
We stood there, watching the boat until we couldn’t see it anymore. Daniel looked over at me. “Are you thinking about your dad?”
I nodded again. “Yeah. I miss him. Sometimes, I just come out here to watch the boats and think about the times when we used to spend hours out there just riding around the river.” I stared out at the water. I loved that old river. It was the only thing constant in an ever-changing world.
I must have stayed quiet for too long because Daniel nudged me with his arm. “What are you thinking about so hard? Planning an escape route?”
“Don’t trust very much do you?” I asked, looking over at him.
His blue-green eyes were on the river. “Nope. It’s happened too many times for me to believe otherwise.”
I squeezed his hand. “I’m not going anywhere unless you want me to,” I assured him.
He turned his gaze back to me. “I don’t want you to go,” he said quietly.
I blew out a breath and looked back out over the water. “I was just thinking about how I could always count on this old river. It’s always been there. Probably always will be. It’s probably been the only thing in my life that hasn’t changed.”
“Now who’s the cynic?”
“I’m not really. Are you?”
“I’m a realist. But you’re right. This river is probably the only thing that hasn’t changed about this place.” He scanned the nearby dock. “Where’s your boat?”
I pointed and he followed my finger. “It’s not a very big boat. But it’s mine.” I frowned, looking at my boat. “It’s all I have left of him.”
We started walking again, talking about different things. Daniel was really nice to talk to. He listened, really listened to what I had to say. And what’s more, he seemed to really think before he answered or said anything. Not once did he say something flippant in response to something I said. I liked that. I liked him.
I spotted the homemade ice cream shop as we meandered on down the boardwalk. I grinned and tugged at his hand. “Do you want to get some ice cream?”
“Okay,” he agreed.
Moments later, we were back on the boardwalk, munching on yummy ice cream. It was delicious, the company lovely. This was turning out to be a good first date. Flo had been wrong about Daniel. And I couldn’t wait to tell her so.
“How’s your ice cream?” I asked, licking the back of the spoon. “What flavor did you get?”
Daniel’s eyes tracked the movement and his eyes darkened. “Black cherry.”
“It is.” He scooped a generous amount onto the spoon and offered it to me. “Here. Try some.”
His gaze never left mine as he watched me sample the ice cream from his spoon. I nodded. “You’re right. It is good.” In turn, I offered him a scoop of mine.
“Delicious,” he murmured, licking his lips.
I looked away from him as a strong wave of desire washed over me. I busied myself with the rest of the ice cream before I was in his arms, begging him to kiss me. That wouldn’t do.
Daniel held my hand, swinging it back and forth between us as we walked back to where my car was parked. His hand was large and warm, and all of a sudden I didn’t want this date to end. This was the first time in a long time that I’d felt like this. When I broke up with my last boyfriend, Conrad, I thought I’d gone sour on men. I’d caught him cheating on me. When I confronted him, he begged and pleaded saying he’d never do it again. I was young and thought I was in love. So I believed him and took him back. I even forgave him. I believed that people learned from their mistakes and could change. I don’t believe that anymore.
In less than a month, he was back up to his old tricks. This time when I called him on his cheating, he went nuts. First, he tried blubbering and apologizing. Then he tried begging and pleading. When none of that worked, he resorted to accusing and screaming. But I stood my ground and told him that we were over. I never dreamed a person could turn so violent so quickly. Conrad pushed me so hard I hit the ground. That didn’t hurt me. But when he started hitting me in the face, I knew I had to get away from him. He apologized profusely for hitting me, swearing that he wouldn’t do it again and that he’d just been really angry. He was sorry. Then he swore he’d kill himself if I left him. I can still clearly remember my last words to him.
“Good. Then there will be one less asshole in the world.”
A shiver went through me and I tried to shake the memory off.
“Are you cold?” Daniel asked.
I blinked, remembering that he was still beside me. “No. No, I’m okay.”
He frowned as if he didn’t believe me, but he didn’t press the issue. I drove us back to his place in silence. He’d been right. It had been a hotel years ago. But when it went under, the developers that brought it turned it into studio apartments. A lot of college kids lived there.
Cutting the engine, I looked over at Daniel who was playing with the seat belt. He must have felt my gaze on him because he looked up.
“Thanks for tonight,” he said quietly. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had a good time with someone. Well a good time period.”
I smiled at him. “I had a good time too.”
“Good enough to let me kiss you?” he asked, not looking at me.
He leaned towards me and I leaned towards him. Our lips met and I gasped as heat rushed through me. For some reason that I still can’t name, I opened my eyes and our gazes locked. I’d never known anyone who kissed with their eyes open. It was the sexiest thing I’d ever seen.
Daniel pulled away first, sliding his right hand along my cheek. “Yes,” he said softly. “A good time.”
I smiled. “Good enough to let me kiss you back?”
The corners of his mouth turned slightly. He seemed to enjoy me playing with him this way. “Maybe,” he said repeating my answer to him.
“Hmm,” he murmured. He cupped my cheek, pulling me towards him again. I slid a hand up his cheek to delve into his hair. It was soft and silky, tangling along my fingers. I pressed my lips to his and he parted his lips beneath mine. He let me kiss him for a moment before he cupped the back of my head, deepening the kiss. My head swam with the taste of him and I never wanted it to end.
My breath was coming in short gasps when he pulled away from me to rest his forehead against mine. I’d never been kissed like that and it left me hungry for more. Or perhaps it was because I was starved for attention. I wondered if we were somewhere other than the cramped confines of my car, would he hold me and touch me gently? Or would he be in a hurry and clumsily paw me the way Conrad had? I looked away from him before he could see every feeling running through me in my eyes.